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Implicit Bias And Why Educators Need To Identify It?


Last night, we had an interesting debate on twitter where we asked educators about implicit bias and how they deal with it. Across the spectrum, teachers feel the need to lead this change but feel helpless as many of these discussions are difficult to perpetuate.

As a person of color, an immigrant and a woman, I have always found discussions on implicit bias tough and hard to lead. Yet, as a person invested in the system and also a person who has identified her own implicit bias and faced it, I find these conversations very important.

The problem with implicit bias is that it's often construed as "racism" or "sexism" and puts everyone on the back foot.

Implicit bias is not racism

Implicit bias is not sexism, either.

Implicit bias is unconscious. It is a mental map of stereotypes we have created basis our interaction with the world around us.

My love affair with Implicit bias started in my days of MBA in a class on Social psychology.

However, it took momentum the day my daughter came home crying. She is passionate about theatre and was upset how her school play had only white characters. She felt she won't make the cut.

These were her exact words - "I won't fit the director's vision of a white, blonde character that fits the script. There is no point auditioning".

At her delicate age, she knew these subtle character differences but more importantly, I knew that she had just faced the very first instance of implicit bias. The system had failed her and many others like her.

This wasn't explicit "racism" and not at all intentional. It was an implicit cognitive bias that led her drama teacher to pick literature that was closest to her own social identity. Her social construct translated into "her" voice and choice. She forgot the two levers of learner's agency that are advocated - The learner's choice and voice.

What is Implicit Bias:

Thoughts and feelings are implicit when we are unaware of them.

People create mental maps and associate stereotypes without their conscious knowledge. It comes from our evolutionary history as hunter gatherers. Perhaps, a cave meant a possible bear or the sound of ruffled leaves meant an enemy around. We have survived through associations. It’s our prehistoric nemesis but also our survival mechanism.

Why It Matters in Education?

A recent study reflected on the effect of Student-Teacher Demographic Match on teacher Expectations. A group of 16,000 white and non-white teachers were asked to predict the future of a bunch of 10th graders and their possible educational attainment. It was found that white teachers were 30% less likely to expect their black students to receive a university degree as against black teachers. For white students, the teacher's predictions were the same.

The first study in the area is a 1983 Princeton study by Darley and Gross. A videotape of a student was shown to a group of educators. One group was told that the student is from a lower socio-economic status and another group was told the student is from a higher socio-economic status. The teachers were then asked to rate the student ability. It was found stereotypes were created basis the information provided, and stereotypical hypothesis was made about ability, basis that. Group that was told the student was from a lower SES rated the child lower in ability than the group that was told that the child was from a higher SES.

How does an educator's expectation translate into student success?

Studies show that student success is directly related to teacher expectations. Implicit biases are not something to be shameful of. But it’s something to recognize and correct.

In my early days of teaching Mindfulness in corrections, despite being a person of color, I was often wary of my Black students than of my White inmates. Subconsciously, I would assume my white students were from better backgrounds and my black students from the ghetto. I would also assume that my white students were there for less serious crimes than my black students.

In essence, I myself broke the first rule of Mindfulness. Engaging with the other in a non-judgement way.

My implicit biases were further cemented by conversations with cops who were harder on their black inmates than the white ones.

As much as I consider the above, as lapses in my own practice of Mindfulness, I am not ashamed of it. I am a product of social constructs and I am not immune to implicit biases either, but I wasn't quick enough to check them.

In another class, where we were working on Mindful reflections, we were working with dreams and visions. I was taken aback by some of the dreams of my students. Some of them wanted to be chefs, other rappers, dancers and businessmen. Students were not shy in adding, "We surprised you, didn't we?"

Regardless of how much we think of ourselves as liberals, the progressives, the open-minded: we are constantly judging. It’s a pattern of our survival code. Her dress is too short, look at the tattoos, the language, the grooming, the confidence. I am aware of how many times educators around me make assumptions and relay to me - that kid is going nowhere or that kid is going to be someone.

We are not alienated from the bias that comes to us basis race, color, country. It’s the part of being human.

As teachers, as parents or as a society we can't afford to ignore this implicit bias and the inequity it perpetuates?

The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby others' expectations of a target person affect the target person's performance. As teachers, our primary role is to impact our student's performance by providing a supportive learning environment. It’s our duty to believe in them. If implicit bias has a direct impact on our belief on our students, we need to deal with it. This disbelief can lead to internalization and actually impact our student's performance. In essence, we perpetuate the inequity that led to the implicit bias in the first place.

We truly don't know how many times as educators we have let our implicit bias damage a child. We can't afford ignoring our implicit biases anymore. As educators, we have to be mindful how we approach our students, how we talk to them and how we convey our expectations. We can't let our biases further the inequities that are perpetuated by poverty or marginalization.

We constantly talk about voice, choice as one of the two important levers of learning agency and yet, we ignore both when it comes to implicit biases.

Are you aware of anytime you let implicit bias impact your view of a student, co-worker or a person? Share with us.

Watch this space for how Mindfulness can help with implicit bias.

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